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Evolution Comes to Florida's Science Standards

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Evolution Comes to Florida's Science Standards
Joshua Rosenau
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
On February 19, 2008, the Florida board of education passed new statewide science standards likely to leapfrog the state from last place in national assessments to the head of the class. Passing these standards was not easy, and even now, forces in Florida are working to undermine the state's new standards.

The old standards earned the grade of F in an assessment by the widely-respected Thomas B Fordham Foundation for many reasons. Not only was "[t]he E-word … sedulously avoided," but temperature and heat were erroneously treated interchangeably, "[t]he classification of simple machines is naïve, …[e]nergetics of phase change is presented misleadingly; treatment of electricity and magnetism, a central subject of school physics, is minimal."

To rectify these and other errors, the Department of Education assembled two teams of experts, one to frame the broad outline of world-class science standards, another to write those standards. When Lawrence S Lerner, a co-author of the Fordham report and professor emeritus of physics at California State University, Long Beach, reviewed a draft of the new standards, he was favorably impressed. In an assessment commissioned by NCSE, he wrote, "This draft is a giant step in the right direction. It is clear, comprehensive, and, most importantly, accurate." He told the writing committee, "With a little bit of extra effort, Florida could bring that up to an A."

Lerner was not the only one to offer suggestions. An on-line comment system hosted by the Florida Department of Education received nearly 21 000 comments from over 10 000 reviewers. Sections of the standards related to evolution, and human evolution in particular, were the focus of attention, especially from religious groups opposing the language of the new standards. However, newspapers from around the state praised the standards, with the Orlando Sentinel (2007 Oct 27) opining, "It's taken seven years, but Florida is on its way to developing a science curriculum for the new millennium — one that requires teachers openly and vigorously to teach about evolution," adding, "It's important that the state Board of Education and Gov Charlie Crist fully endorse these changes to ensure Florida's children can compete in the increasingly technology-driven global marketplace."

Surveying the forces arrayed against these standards, I told Wired News (2007 Dec 10), "My fear is that Florida will do something like happened in Kansas a couple years ago, with the Board of Education overruling the decisions made by the expert committee appointed to draft the new standards" (for details on the situation in Kansas, see RNCSE 2005 Jan/Feb; 25 [1]: 6–11; 2006 May/Jun; 26 [3]: 13–4). Similarly, NCSE's Glenn Branch told Education Week (2007 Nov 7), "I expect to see some of kind of organized effort [by opponents] to deprecate the standards."

Those warnings were prescient. A staffer at the Department of Education was disciplined in December 2007 for using her position to help stir up that opposition (see sidebar, p 6). She was not fired, but was instructed not to use her status in the department in arguing against the inclusion of evolution in the standards.

Opposition also came from county school boards. A dozen counties, mostly in northern Florida, passed resolutions calling for the state board to reject the new standards, or to revise them to weaken sections related to evolution. The suggested changes follow common creationist talking points, calling for evolution to be taught as "theory, not fact," for the standards to single out evolution by stressing its "strengths and weaknesses," or for "critical analysis" of that single topic. Not all such proposals were successful. The Highland County school board rejected such a resolution on February 5, 2008. And on February 12, 2008, the Monroe County school board actually passed a resolution supporting the standards as written, contending that "a scientifically educated workforce will benefit Florida's future economy," and urging the state board of education to adopt the new standards as written.

The state board also came under pressure from David Gibbs III, a lawyer with the Christian Legal Association who also represents creationist Nathaniel Abraham in his employment suit against Woods Hole (see Updates, p 16–8). Gibbs sent two memos to the Board of Education, both claiming that "the [writing] committee may have become monopolized by Fordham and other lobby-pressure groups. … We are concerned that the underlying motive driving these pressure groups might be to inject a hostility to religion into objective science." He then suggested various changes which tended to soften strong statements of results in evolutionary biology. For instance, a benchmark that students should be able to "[i]dentify basic trends in hominid evolution from early ancestors six million years ago to modern humans" would have become "[i]dentify the types of hominid fossil evidence from the estimated six million years of hominid existence, and describe the types of evolutionary changes from those classified as early hominids to modern man, as suggested by this evidence."

With help from the Discovery Institute, writing committee member Fred Cutting, an engineer, issued a report dissenting from the draft standards. Though he claimed that this represented a "minority report," like the one taken up by the Kansas Board of Education in 2005, Cutting's dissent had no official status, and seems to have no support from the other committee members. He suggested adding "[s]tudents should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life," and omitting any discussion of the age of hominin ancestors, changing the benchmark about hominin evolution to state that students should "[i]dentify the types of fossil hominids species and use critical and logical thinking to explain aspects of human origins that are documented, and those that are not documented by the fossil evidence."

Opposition also emerged at public hearings, including a hastily arranged meeting on February 11, eight days before the board was to vote on the new standards. At that meeting, the St Petersburg Times (2008 Feb 12) reported that a speaker "held up an orange and said that because of evolution, he now had irrefutable evidence that an orange was 'the first cousin to somebody's pet cat' and 'related to human beings.'" Another speaker addressed the supposed moral consequences of teaching evolution, with Darwin compared with Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung. The Orlando Sentinel (2008 Feb 12) summarized, "Some speakers said they wanted creationism or intelligent design taught, while others said they just wanted what they called weaknesses in the theory of evolution talked about, too."

A number of scientists, educators, and citizens from around the state responded to the creationist complaints. A majority of the science standards writing committee itself urged the board to adopt the new set of standards, in a statement read by Gerry Meisels, a committee member and professor of chemistry at the University of South Florida. Meisels was quoted by the Associated Press (2008 Feb 11) as saying, "We are frustrated by the disproportionate publicity and the political pressure that has been brought to bear on decision makers. Yielding to these pressures would be a real disservice to Florida because it would not only seriously impede the education of our children but also create the image of a backward state." (For a longer excerpt from the statement by the writers and framers, see sidebar, p 8–9.)

Debra Walker, an archaeologist who serves on the Monroe County school board and on the writing committee, also urged the board to accept the new set of standards without tinkering. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Walker "said the current 'political meltdown over Darwinian theory' was proof that too many people had received a poor-quality science education. She noted that the school districts with some of the lowest science scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were the ones complaining loudest about the new standards. 'Do we want these boards setting science policy in Florida? I think not.'"

Joe Wolf, president of the grassroots group Florida Citizens for Science, presented a petition signed by over 1500 supporters of the standards, describing evolution as "the central organizing concept that allows us to understand all biological sciences from medicine to forestry to entomology, and its principles are the theoretical basis that underlies major advances in all biological fields" and called on the board to accept the final draft. The Lakeland Ledger (2008 Feb 12) reported that Wolf warned the board, "It will be a sad day if Florida becomes the next Kansas" by rewriting the work of their expert committee.

In addition to the petition organized by Florida Citizens for Science, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter encouraging the board to resist efforts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the standards. And the American Institute for Biological Sciences followed suit, telling the board, "The biologists and science educators represented by AIBS, and the scientific community as a whole, agree that there is no research supporting either creationism or 'intelligent design' or challenging the importance of evolution for explaining the history and diversity of life." The American Association for the Advancement of Science sent letters supporting the standards to the entire board, and the National Academy of Sciences sent a similarly laudatory message in response to a query from board member Roberto Martinez. (For excerpts from these statements, see sidebar, p 8–9.)

Creationists continued to lobby the board to compromise the treatment of evolution after these hearings. John Stemberger, president and general counsel for Florida Family Policy Council, complained to the Lakeland Ledger (2008 Feb 12) that critics of the standards had not been given enough chances to speak to the board directly: "We will lobby the commissioner and governor until we get our 15 minutes each before the board." According to the St Petersburg Times (2008 Feb 12), "The groups promised to bombard Gov Charlie Crist and other state officials with thousands of requests until the board says okay."

Less than a week before the final vote on the standards, it was reported that the board, bowing to pressure from the public and state legislators, had asked state commissioner of education Eric Smith to redraft the standards, inserting the phrases "scientific theory of" and "scientific law of" before mentions of evolution, plate tectonics, electromagnetism, and gravity. A spokesperson for the department told the Orlando Sentinel (2008 Feb 16) that the new version was vetted by the writing committee, but a later report in the Sentinel (2008 Feb 17) suggested that a majority of the committee opposed the changes, quoting Debra Walker as saying, "There is no scientifically sound reason to make these changes" and Gerry Meisels (a professor of chemistry at the University of South Florida) describing them as "clumsy".

Then the opponents of the standards were granted one of their wishes, when the Board of Education announced that twenty members of the public would be given three minutes each to address the board at its meeting, with ten speaking in favor of the standards, ten speaking against them. Following that comment period, the board would consider whether to adopt the standards.

Among those speaking for the standards were Jonathan Smith of Florida Citizens for Science, writing committee members Debra Walker and Gerry Meisels, Joseph Travis (the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Florida State University), and Nobel laureate Sir Harold Kroto, who also composed an op-ed for the Ft Myers News-Press (2008 Feb 16), in which he praised the medical benefits derived from evolutionary biology, and worried that if anti-evolution forces prevailed, "they will seriously impede the ability of the next cohort of young scientists to create the defenses we shall need in the fight against debilitating diseases over the next century."

During a lively debate lasting about sixty minutes, board member Donna Callaway proposed a so-called "academic freedom" amendment to the standards to counter what she described as the "dogmatic" tone of the standards with respect to evolution. The Miami Herald (2008 Feb 19) reported, "The amendment would have given teachers the explicit permission 'to engage students in a critical analysis of that evidence.'" She was unable to obtain a second to her motion, however.

Ultimately, the version of the standards edited to add "scientific theory" was adopted by a 4–3 vote. Joining Callaway in voting against the standards were evolution supporters Akshay Desai and Roberto Martinez, although for very different reasons. Martinez in particular fiercely defended the standards as drafted, brandishing the letter from the National Academy of Sciences endorsing the writing committee's version, and asking pointed questions about the development of the new version.

Martinez was quoted by the Associated Press (2008 Feb 19) lamenting, "What we have here is an effort by people to water down our standards." To judge from the reaction of creationists, however, even the new version of the standards was too much. The Associated Press also reported that the Florida Family Policy Council, disappointed in the board's vote, planned to seek legislation to ensure "academic freedom" with respect to evolution.

Supporters of accurate science education were generally positive, albeit with reservations, about the outcome. Asked for comment about the board's vote by Education Week (2008 Feb 19), Florida Citizens for Science's Brandon Haught answered, "The standards, as approved, are a huge step forward for our Florida schools ... They're light years ahead of what's been used in the state." I agreed with Haught's assessment, telling Education Week, "This is a win for science overall."

NCSE's Glenn Branch, writing for Beacon Press's blog (reprinted in RNCSE Jan/Feb 2008; 28 [1]: 9–10), observed, "Evolution is still described, correctly, as 'the organizing principle of life science' and as 'supported by multiple forms of evidence.' And the standards distance themselves from the pejorative sense of 'theory' that creationists from [William Jennings] Bryan onward like to exploit: 'a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer.'"

The eminent biologist Paul R Gross, lead author of the 2005 Fordham Foundation report that awarded the grade of F to Florida, was less sanguine, describing the revisions to the standards as "transparent and wacky" in the Tallahassee Democrat (2008 Feb 25). Gross argued, "The standards refer persistently to the scientific theory of evolution, so should they not at least touch upon the implied nonscientific theories of evolution? Surely we should ask, 'Are there any such theories?' No. Not for any serious scientific or any other educational purpose. What then, pray, is the point of belaboring, with the pompous prefix 'scientific theory of,' the following: evolution, cells, geology, atoms?" He added, "In fact, it provides inside Florida's new standards a perfect counter-example to the intellectual integrity the standards themselves promote."

The revisions, in any case, were obviously not enough to satisfy Florida's creationists, including board member Donna Callaway, who pressed for the so-called academic freedom amendment. The next fight may be in the state legislature: Florida House of Representatives Speaker Marco Rubio (R–District 111) told the Florida Baptist Witness (2008 Feb 21) that he thought that the House would be receptive to legislation revising the standards along the lines proposed by Callaway. The Orlando Sentinel (2008 Feb 23) editorially criticized the idea, writing, "This academic-freedom law is just an attempt to sneak creationism through the schoolhouse's back door. ... Even with the last-minute compromise, the new science curriculum is a huge improvement. Leave it alone." (As this issue goes to press, such legislation narrowly failed in both houses of the state legislature. Developments will be chronicled in a future issue of RNCSE.)

Floridians can be proud of their new standards, but this is just the first step in improving the state's science education. The inclusion of evolution in the new standards puts the state in strong position to improve classroom handling of evolution as well as the quality of textbooks and the tests which measure science education. Textbook adoption begins later in 2008, and will be finalized in 2011. The tests based on these new standards are being written now, after which they will be field tested and ultimately go into use in 2010, with a more thorough revision to be rolled out in 2013. The dozen county boards of education which passed resolutions against the standards are also of particular concern. NCSE will continue to work with grassroots groups energized by this fight to ensure that the standards are implemented fully and accurately through those statewide processes, and especially in local schools, and to build support for accurate science education in the legislature.

About the Author(s): 
Joshua Rosenau
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477

Joshua Rosenau is Public Information Project Director for NCSE.